Tom Flanagan is no idiot.
Flanagan, a former senior adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has published numerous academic and literary works in his role as a political science professor at the University of Calgary. As well, his columns have been published in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Maclean’s and even Time.
But for a man of his political acumen, one who has spent a great deal of time in the public eye, Flanagan’s recent comments on child pornography possession seem wildly out of touch with political and legal reality in this country, not to mention public opinion.
The Calgary professor came under fire last week after he told an audience during a public lecture in Alberta that he had “grave doubts” about jailing people who look at pictures or video of child pornography. As the Torstar News Service reported, the remarks were in response to a question over a similar comment Flanagan made in 2009 during his visit to the University of Manitoba.
Though Flanagan apologized for offending anyone the very next day — after video footage of the Alberta lecture was posted on YouTube — his comments denounced by the Prime Minister’s Office, and he was summarily dumped from Alberta’s Wild Rose party and the CBC show “Power and Politics.”
At least a few political pundits and academics jumped to his defence in the wake of his public humiliation, saying that the political scientist was unjustifiably condemned for his comments on child pornography. As the National Post reported, Mark Mercer at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax said Flanagan is allowed to have an opinion.
That is quite true. Everyone has the right to their own opinion. And in fact, in a column printed in Monday’s National Post, Flanagan tried to better explain his point of view and give his comments some context.
For just a moment, let’s leave his poorly made public comments alone for a moment and look at what he says he was trying to say.
At the heart of Flanagan’s libertarian view is this — he states that people in possession of child pornography do not create the videos and pictures, and do not conduct the actual child molestation, and thus should not be given such harsh penalties for merely looking at the graphic details. He suggests that counselling and therapy would be a better answer, both for the child porn viewer and for Canadian society at large.
Currently, every person who is found in possession of child pornography in Canada is guilty of an indictable offence and subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of six months imprisonment, to a maximum of five years. They’re also guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction, and subject to imprisonment for a term of 18 months or less, with a minimum punishment of 90 days.
In our opinion, Flanagan’s reasoning is faulty. The whole point of harsh possession sentencing is to deter would-be viewers from accessing the videos and pictures in the first place. Possession merely contributes to the child porn black market, and drives further production of these kinds of materials. Possession is not a victimless crime.
Not only does possession condone horrid acts against children, it can prompt some individuals to commit offences themselves. Giving such offenders a weaker sentence will not serve as an effective deterrent.
We can somewhat forgive Flanagan for his poor judgment — and for confusing a public forum with Ivory Tower discussion. He said as much in his National Post column yesterday.
“For those of us involved in such theoretical debates, it is easy to forget that there may be a more settled consensus outside the academy, and that our speculations may seem disturbing, even shocking, when expressed in the realm of public opinion,” Flanagan wrote in his National Post column yesterday. “Someone like me, who has for a long time been operating both inside and outside of academic life, should have been more aware of that problem.”
He’s quite right. Anyone who has had that much experience in the public eye should have been more aware of what he was saying in such a forum.
But we also believe he’s on the wrong side of the argument on this one. And for that he has paid a steep price in the court of public opinion.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition March 5, 2013